Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's really all about God, part 2

Psalm 25; Luke 21: 25-36
******** United Church of Christ
November 29, 2009 - First Sunday in Advent

This morning I did not preach a sermon for several reasons: I was out of town for a few days for Thanksgiving, I had been fighting a cold and sore throat earlier in the week, and I sang at a funeral at my home church on Saturday afternoon. I had planned on not writing a sermon because the constraints on my time but my usual preparation, that of reading and reflecting, did happen. And so I offered an abbreviated reading from chapter 1 of the book It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic which I blogged about

Chapter 1 can be found
here. However, I encourage you to purchase a copy or request one from your local library and read the book entire. This is an important book at an important time. Given the proximity we share with many different religions and also those of no religion, we need to learn the language not only of tolerance but also of curiosity, inquiry and respect.

Christians and Christmas have a way of steamrolling through the month of December as though we are the only show in town. If we who await the birth of Christ are serious about looking for the Christ, then we must seek out the Christ in unlikely places and peoples. And what do I mean by the Christ? The word "Christ" means "Anointed One", that one anointed to be sovereign in God's kingdom, but it can also mean one who is anointed with the Spirit of love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, justice, and peace, which can come from any human heart focused on those things.

Reading this book at times has been like reading pages from my own experience. From the prologue:
"...I know I cannot survive without some kind of certainty. To live, I need some stable ground to live on, a soil from which I can sustain my life, a place where I can pitch my tent, a landing where I can make friends.

"...To create a new empty space within, I decided to let some uncertainty enter my life, and I wish I could say the experience has been wonderful. It hasn't. It feels like stepping on a makeshift bridge, suspended, with firm ground left behind and no assurances of what I might find beyond the thick fog in the front. Questioning my own certainties has been a lonely, painful experience. Uncertainty hurts. Yet it is uncertainty that has been saving my life. Doubt would carry me. When I allowed more questions to serve as vessels of my faith, life could win. And expand. I could grow deeper, where fresh, strong new currents of faith could be found."
Right now I would describe myself as a Buddhist Agnostic Goddess 12-step Christian. Those are the five traditions so far that have informed my sense of the dual mystery of love and life but it is the Christian story that first captured my heart and made a claim upon my life and still does. If we are true to our faith and to God, one religion or worldview cannot possibly capture the essence of this mystery we call God. We must learn to be open to the other, as Selmanovic puts it, if peace is ever to come on earth.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

King of the road

Way to Calvary, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

Psalm 93; John 18: 33-38
******** United Church of Christ
November 22, 2009 – Reign of Christ

Can you wait? I don’t mean are you excited or anticipating something wonderful. I mean can you wait. Are you good at waiting? Are you a patient person when you are in the grocery checkout line, stuck in traffic, in a crowded doctor’s office? When winter groans on into March or even April, do you curse the earth out of which crocuses and daffodils will soon grow? When the search process goes into its second year, which is a possibility, will your souls still be hearty and bright with the promise to come?

Waiting is a hard thing to do but it is inherent in being a Christian. Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of one year in the church and the close of one cycle of lectionary readings from the Bible. It is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the new year begins next Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent, our season of waiting for the birth of Jesus.

But if Christ is king, where is his kingdom? If Christ reigns, what exactly does he rule? Since the first disciples proclaimed him risen from the dead and witnessed his ascension, since the apostle Paul encountered him on the road to Damascus and began preaching the good news, Christians have been waiting for Christ to return.

We’ve been waiting a long time; it’s been a very long road. In every age, there have been those who said he would return in their lifetime, for such a time as theirs. There have been wars and revolutions, cataclysms, epidemics and pandemics, such stuff that makes for an apocalypse: a total devastation that would at last reveal this Christ, this God who rules the universe. For surely if this world is torn in two, like the curtain that surrounded the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple, we could at last force the divine hand and see who it is lurking behind that curtain. If there is enough pain, and there are some who believe this, surely Christ will come.

This past week I read a book by Cormac McCarthy published in 2006 entitled The Road. I read it now because it is also a film that has just been released in theatres. It is a postapocalyptic novel about a man and his son traveling south in a cold, gray, ash-filled world where some of the few people that are left have resorted to living in groups, preying on solitary figures as a means of sustenance. But the man and the boy strive to remain “the good guys”, sustaining themselves out of their love for each other. As affirmation and as a talisman they often say to one another that they are carrying the fire within them as they travel the lonely road, and that it is this ‘fire’ sets them apart from those who would prey upon them.

As I try to do each day in my living, I looked for the Christ throughout this book. I wanted to know where was God in this fictional but very possible world. How could it become possible for human beings to allow themselves to de-evolve in such a way as to look at each other as their only means of survival but as cattle? How is it that we might allow ourselves to become so depraved and so cruel? Why must we survive at any cost, even at the cost of other human lives? Since the first crude weapon was raised against another being, since the story of Cain and Abel, that question has loomed over us.

Many times in our daily lives we behave as though what we are living through is imminent life or death. Our adrenaline level rises, kicking up our heart rate and blood pressure, and our emotions take captive the best of us, even as we are waiting. Most, if not all, of what we deal with on a daily basis is not a matter of imminent life or death. Most, if not all, of what we deal with on a daily basis is the control of our fear: our fear of death and our fear of living a real life, that real life where the kingdom is made visible through us.

Our culture teaches us that our highest good, the truth, is life, even to the point of life at all costs. Jesus teaches us that our highest good, the truth, is love, even to the point of losing his life. All three of the lectionary readings from the gospels for this Sunday are taken from end of Jesus’ life, right before he is about to die. Christ’s kingship, his lordship begins as his life ends. How can life be the highest good, be the truth if one day it will come to an end?

We believe that life will not end not because life in its own mystical way renews itself and is reborn. We believe that life does not end because of love, because love never ends. It is the fire within us that never dies. Love is the kingdom of God within us, love so great that it can lay down life for the sake of friends. This is the truth that Pilate could not wrap his head around, the truth that went to the cross, the truth that each one of us has to come to in our own way.

We may look for the reign of Christ in this world and catch glimpses of the kingdom as we travel the road of life. We may companion one another, as we are called to do, and share this fire, this love with one another as we wait for the kingdom to come on earth, for God’s will to be done.

Icon of Matthew 25

But if we are truly serious about seeking the Christ, we must first look within us. The world offers many alternatives to combat and control our fear. Some of them work, many of them don’t. Neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, but if we neglect to look for Christ and his kingdom within us, it will be all the harder and more fearful to live that real life.

And so, ******** United Church of Christ, are you carrying the fire, the radical truth of love within you? Who is the king of your road? When has it been hardest for you to wait? How is the kingdom made visible through you? Where and when have you seen glimpses of that kingdom of love and peace? How often do you take time to be quiet, to meditate and to wait for the Lord?

Christ’s kingdom is within us. If Christ’s truth, which is love, is to be made real within us and live through us, we must have an inner life through which this love can express itself. The road we call Advent is a perfect time to begin a practice of quiet listening and waiting, to allow the fire to be rekindled once more.

In the writing of this sermon I was inspired to offer an Advent devotion to you. Each Wednesday in Advent at 6:30 p.m. beginning Dec. 2, I will be here in the sanctuary with candles lit and lights turned down low. I will be in quiet prayer and meditation for 45 minutes. I invite you to join me in this quiet stillness to listen in your own way. Then until 7:30 we will talk quietly and briefly about what we heard in the silence. Come when you can and enter in peace that the peace and the love of Christ may rule in your heart. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A happy dance

1 Samuel 1: 4-20; 2: 1-10
******** United Church of Christ
November 15, 2009

(Begin by doing an end zone happy dance.)

The touchdown spike is said to have been born in 1965, by New York Giants wide receiver Homer Jones. Over the years since then, NFL or “Not Fun League” officials have made it illegal for players to call attention to themselves in any number of ways, levying huge fines on players but effectively have not been able to stop players from trying.

Let’s face it: when we have succeeded at something, when a prayer has been answered, when we realize our wildest dreams, when we have conquered the odds against us, the urge to do a happy dance cannot be squelched.

But have you ever done a happy dance before the job was finished, before the prayer was answered, before the dream came true, when the odds stacked against you were seemingly too high? No, of course not, we answer—that would jinx it. Jinx it?! Are we a people of superstition or a people of faith? Listen to this story of a preemptive happy dance by Jim Wallis, author and writer for Sojourners magazine, that took place in the last years of apartheid in South Africa. He writes:

“Change always begins with some people making decisions based on hope, and then staking their lives on those decisions. The difference between optimism and hope is that the former changes too easily; the latter is rooted in something much deeper. That something is faith. South African archbishop Desmond Tutu always said that people of faith are ‘prisoners of hope’. The succeeding events in his country vindicated that faith.

“Perhaps my favorite story of the power of hope comes from a memorable moment shared with Desmond Tutu in South Africa. I love to tell the story of the extraordinary drama I witnessed at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town where the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican cleric preached. A political rally had just been canceled by the white government, so Bishop Tutu called for a worship service instead, inside the beautiful cathedral. The power of apartheid was frighteningly evident in the numbers of riot police and armed soldiers massing outside the church. Inside, all along the cathedral walls, stood more police openly taping and writing down every comment made from the pulpit. When Tutu rose to speak, the atmosphere was tense indeed. He confidently proclaimed that the ‘evil’ and ‘oppression’ of apartheid ‘cannot prevail’. At that moment, the South African archbishop was probably one of the few people on the planet who actually believed that.

Jim Wallis continues: “…I watched Archbishop Tutu point his finger right at the police who were recording his words. ‘You may be powerful, indeed very powerful, but you are not God!’ ‘You have already lost!’ the diminutive preacher thundered. Then he came out from behind the pulpit and seemed to soften, flashing that signature Desmond Tutu smile. So—since they had already lost, as had just been made clear—South Africa’s spiritual leader shouted with glee, ‘We are inviting you to come and join the winning side!’ The whole place erupted, the police seemed to scurry out, and the congregation rose up in triumphal dancing.” [1]

In an interview with Homiletics, an online preaching resource, Jim Wallis said this: “[The] choice before us as Christians is not the choice between belief and secularism; the choice is between hope and cynicism. And hope is not optimism, hope is not idealism, hope is not a feeling. Hope is a decision based on what we know about the outcome of history. Hope is based on the resurrection. Hope is based in the confidence of the triumph of God’s purposes in the world.” [2]

In Hannah’s song of exultation, most of what she sings has not yet happened but because God has granted her a son, she knows God can accomplish the rest of her hopes and those of her people. She has decided to say ‘yes’, to celebrate God’s purposes that will happen in God’s time.

You have not yet begun a search process for your settled pastor. You have begun to consider how you might change how you govern yourselves but you have not yet arrived at the future structure of your life together. Many of you have big question marks looming in your lives right now. But you have declared that you are people of faith, people who say ‘yes’ to hope, who choose to celebrate God’s very real presence in the face of uncertainty. Now is the very right time for a preemptive happy dance. And so dance whenever and wherever you can, celebrating that God’s purposes will indeed happen in God’s time. Amen.

[1] Jim Wallis. Faith Works: How Faith-Based Organizations Are Changing Lives, Neighborhoods and America (New York: Random House, 2000, 2001), pg. 5.


Monday, November 02, 2009

Homeless and homeward bound

Ruth 1: 1-18; Mark 12: 28-34
******** United Church of Christ
November 1, 2009 – All Saints Sunday

Ever since there have been wars and natural disasters, there have been refugees, that is, people forced from their homes seeking refuge. One statistic of the Iraq war we don’t hear much of is the number of refugees, both internally and externally displaced. The pre-war population of Iraq was 25 million. To date, over 4.5 million Iraqis—almost one-fifth of the population—have been forced from their homes; over 2 million Iraqis have left the country. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Sweden, amongst many other countries, have taken in more refugees than they can handle, regardless of the fact that they have had no responsibility in the cause of this crisis. No more than 25,000 refugees have been referred to the United States in the past five years; only 7,000 have been admitted.

Because of these statistics and more, the United Church of Christ is resolved to provide funding and resources for the work necessary to care for these displaced persons and for those serving in the military and their families, and to call for an end to this war.

Even now in New Haven, five Iraqi families have been resettled through the auspices of the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, an affiliate of Church World Service. The goal is to supplement rent payments for 6 to 12 months until families can get on their feet again. Even though the cost is higher, all families are placed in small modest apartments in safe neighborhoods with decent schools so they can transition more easily into this strange new life. Donations of furniture, clothing and money are still needed to help other refugee families in New Haven, so letters are then sent to regional ministers like Mike Penn-Strah, so that local UCC churches can help where they can. Our gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing are one source of support for refugee services that give caring and hope.

Iraqi refugee family hosted by First Congregational Church, Brookfield, CT
In this morning’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law have no support or caring or hope except for each other. All three of them are refugees from their homelands—Naomi from her native town of Bethlehem in Judah; Orpah and Ruth from the country of Moab. Naomi had originally left because of a famine and settled with her family in Moab. Now she and her daughters-in-law are all widows and have started to return to Judah, but really none of them has a home. Without husbands to care for them, they are homeless and without worth. They have nothing but the mercy of God upon which to rely.

It is thought that the book of Ruth was written either during the exile or after the exile, when the people of God as yet had not rebuilt the Jerusalem temple, thereby having no home themselves. Ever since God called Abraham out of Ur to the land of Canaan, to Jacob moving his family to Egypt, to Moses leading the Israelites in the desert, God’s people have been nomads. Can we really wonder then why today the land of Israel is so important to Jews? And yet in this morning’s reading we see a tension between returning home and forsaking it for something more; the same tension in any kind of transition.

Orpah, after first refusing to return home, does as a good daughter-in-law should and obeys Naomi by going back to the land of her birth. How many of us would do the same? We go back to what is familiar. How many of you are native to Connecticut? To Milford or a nearby town? Imagine what it would take to force you from your home. Loyalty to a country or town or place gives us a sense of security and identity, of being rooted and grounded.

Ruth and Naomi, He Qi, 2001.

But Ruth’s loyalty is a virtue that has the power to transform us into faithful, trustworthy individuals and a community of friends and true family. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”

In this life of faith we are all refugees, sojourning through this world on our way to our one true home which is there for us at any time. Jesus tells us that the greatest commandments are to do with love, the ultimate loyalty to God and to our neighbor. You know this every time you serve dinner to a homeless person and eat with them here in this home. You know this when you pray for each other, when you fill out a pledge card, when you serve as a church leader, when you teach Sunday School, when you give to a mission offering, bring food for the food pantry, or provide for coffee hour.

Home is not a place but what we do and who we are as God’s people wherever we are. Theologian Marcus Borg wrote that “…beliefs do not save us, do not transform us. Trust and loyalty do. This…is the primary meaning of faith…the purpose of Christian life…the vision at the heart of a transformation-centered Christianity”. Trust and loyalty to God, trust and loyalty to our neighbor: this is what transforms us; this is our one true home. Amen.